Film and TV

Hail, Mary

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The repressed Irish-Catholic schoolgirl Molly Shannon plays on Saturday Night Live is certainly not everyone's cup of glee. But there's no denying the tug she exerts on anyone whose past is littered with the dry husks of Latin verbs and memories of nuns swinging big rulers. Shannon's klutzy Mary Katherine Gallagher, with her thick glasses, stammering courage and unfulfilled libido, is a bundle of doubts and agressions you don't have to be Catholic (or ex-Catholic) to grasp. But it helps.

Like many an SNL regular before her, Shannon now sets out, character firmly established, for the movies. Like Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler or the jokers from Wayne's World, she gets mixed results. Superstar, Mary Katherine Gallagher's big-screen debut, runs a tidy, TV-friendly 82 minutes, and it furnishes her with both a context (parents killed in step-dancing accident; now living with eccentric grandmother) and finite goals (win school talent contest; get kissed by dreamboat). But neither Shannon's relentless energy nor the best efforts of writer Steven Wayne Koren and director Bruce McCulloch (Dog Park) can overcome reality: This is a sketch stretched thin -- with a $7.50 price tag on it.

Still, Shannon provides some solid pleasures now that she's twenty feet tall. Kneeling at her bedside, Mary Katherine prays: "Please, God, send me someone to tongue-kiss." As always, she stumbles over the furniture. Relegated to the nerd table in the St. Monica's cafeteria, she fantasizes a full-scale teen dance number, with herself as the centerpiece.

That's not all. Caught in the trough between lust and guilt, the girl who since her first TV appearance in 1995 has been sniffing her sweat-moistened fingertips manages to break out of her funk -- at least for a moment. Not only do we see the usual flash of Mary Katherine's white cotton underpants, we also glimpse her in minor triumph. It doesn't come from the source she expects, but it comes nonetheless.

Shannon had better enjoy it while it lasts. That she has grown a little long in the tooth to play a seventeen-year-old is more obvious than ever on the big screen, and some of her fellow students -- notably SNL stalwart Will Ferrell, who plays the vain object of her affections -- look like they should be on the faculty.

Speaking of faculty, Superstar goes particularly easy on its priests and nuns. The rigors of parochial education are, of course, a major source of Mary Katherine's trauma, but her captors, like Mark McKinney's Father Ritley, seem more bewildered than incensed by her rampaging hormones and crushing neuroses. In fact, Elaine Hendrix, who plays the obligatory beautiful blonde with a heart of stone and a case of bulimia, takes a lot more heat here. Newcomer Emmy Laybourne gets the plum sidekick part. She's Mary Katherine's gawky best friend, Helen, the center on the girl's basketball team and a kid who could shred point guards with the braces on her teeth.

Because Superstar arrives in the era of special effects, the makers have glitzed things up with a glowing, wisecracking vision of Christ (also played by Ferrell), which springs straight out of Mary Katherine's overheated subconscious. "Get jiggy with it," the Son of God advises the tormented teen. "I'm outta here." If the bishops are still looking for something to complain about, this bit of comic blasphemy may fill the bill.

Meanwhile, the rest of us get a full-strength dose of Mary Katherine Gallagher at her most troubled. Lost to carnal fantasy, she French-kisses trees and stop signs. Substituting soap opera for selfhood, she spouts monologues from cheesy TV movies. Ridiculed by classmates, racked by conscience and jilted by life, she bravely fights on. She constantly stumbles and falls (always saying "Sorry" to someone), but the way she keeps getting back on her feet is strangely affecting. Ten years from now, we will likely remember her vaguely as a passing fancy on a TV show that had seen its better days and as someone who probably didn't belong at the multiplex in the first place. But in Mary Katherine Gallagher's dogged perserverence, it's easy to find not only cheap laughs, but real soul, too. In her way, she's a saint.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo